Must-See NoLIta and Little Italy

Christopher Wallace

For more than 100 years, Manhattan's Little Italy has been a haven for family, tradition, community and celebration—and, of course, formidable culinary offerings. Though significantly reduced in size from its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, this enclave below Houston, bordered by Crosby on the west, Bowery to the east, and Canal Street on the south, is still a hub for Sunday suppers that would make Nonna proud. Above Delancey Street, the area now known as NoLIta (North of Little Italy) is among New York's hottest shopping districts. Indeed, visitors to the neighborhood now come for retail expeditions as much as any sense of devotion to its heritage, though the area's storied past is certainly feted. The Feast of San Gennaro, an 11-day festival that honors the eponymous saint and features food, entertainment and dancing, is still held every September, though the festival these days is less liturgical and more gastronomic in nature. (In the film The Godfather Part II, the event was a backdrop as the young Vito Corleone stalked the rooftops in pursuit of a rival mafioso en route to becoming the top don.) Little Italy has seen a revival of late, as a new generation of restaurateurs and retailers have moved into the former social clubs and mafia hangouts, ensuring the neighborhood is now both trendy and historic. For more about what to do and see—and where to dine—read on.

Torrisi Italian Specialties. Photo: Daniel Krieger

Renaissance Fare
If Italian dining in Little Italy is experiencing a renaissance, then Torrisi Italian Specialties on Mulberry Street is the movement's Sistine Chapel. Set in an unassuming storefront, with design details including lace curtains and mismatched china, Torrisi evokes the supper clubs that once dominated the area. But chef/owners Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone eschew the area's orthodoxy of red-sauce eateries, providing instead seven- and 20-course tasting menus that recall the tradition of home-cooked Sunday suppers. Adhering to the ethical law laid down by grandmothers (and now locavores) everywhere—to use only the freshest local ingredients, prepared simply—Torrisi's menu nods at the Old World while simultaneously embracing the New. Among its offerings are sheep's milk gnocchi with chestnut ragu; duck maraschino; and lemon cake. By day, the owners' diner Parm, next door, serves up fare like meatball subs and chicken parm elevated into the sublime.

For more traditionally Italian fare, Peasant does exceptional rustic Tuscan—the menu includes bistecca alla Fiorentina, wood-baked skate, burrata with roasted tomatoes—in a cozy, glitteringly lit space on Elizabeth Street, and Keith McNally's trattoria Pulino's never misses. Lombardi's is said to be the first pizzeria in the City (and, thus, the entire United States), and it's still among the best Neapolitan-style pizza joints around. But the modern-style pies at the nearby Rubirosa give the venue a run for its money.

La Esquina. Photo: Will Steacy

Tacos, Tortas and More
To hear a New Yorker tell it—especially one who has spent any time in the Southwest—the City has always been lacking in Mexican cuisine. When, in 2005, restaurateurs including nightlife impresario Serge Becker opened La Esquina Taqueria and Café, that antiquated truism began to show its age. Rightly so: occupying the remnants of a '50s-style greasy spoon at the southern tip of Petrosino Square (and still decorated with its neon sign, which reads, "The Corner"), the taquería serves delicious tortas, soups, tacos, margaritas and beer through its walk-up (or skateboard-up) window. The location is perfect for people-watching matinees.

Any lingering inferiority complexes about the state of Mexican food in Manhattan were blown away in 2010 when Dario Wolos pulled his taco-slinging VW Combi bus into a building on Elizabeth Street. Christened Tacombi at Fonda Nolita, this little bus is a replica of the surfside cart Wolos had run for five years in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. With a new chef, Luis Aguilar Puente, from Tortilleria Chispo in Tulum, Mexico, whipping up crowd-pleasing ceviches and short rib tacos—as well as some more exotic small bites and a host of searingly sublime salsas—the venue is now an NYC institution.

Supreme. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Supreme Beings
Believe it or not, New York City has a vibrant skate and surf culture, and NoLIta is its hub. Exhibit A: the staggering line, often several dozen deep, awaiting new merch dropping at James Jebbia's Supreme flagship on Lafayette. Opened in 1994 (after Jebbia parted ways with streetwear king Shawn Stussy), the store initially capitalized on its desolate location as a site for skateboarding. The label is now recognized worldwide for its savvy guerilla promotions as well as partnerships with artists and celebrities ranging from Richard Prince and Chloë Sevigny to Kermit the Frog.

A few blocks south, Saturdays Surf on Crosby Street has, since its opening in 2009, become the hang for Endless Summer–style slackers. The backyard deck is a perfect spot to sip on La Colombe coffee and geek out over big wave action shots at the Far Rockaway rips. Closer at hand, the renovated Petrosino Square is a de facto meetup for skaters, whose kickflipping provides entertainment to those sitting in adjacent cafés.

McNally Jackson. Photo: Will Steacy

Book Marks
Despite the fragmentation of the modern reading experience brought on by e-readers and virtual connectivity, a very lively, satisfyingly corporeal literary scene is alive and well in New York City. The bookstore McNally Jackson, located on Prince Street just east of Lafayette, offers the tactile pleasures of books and bibliophilic community. Founded in 2004 by Sarah McNally with money from her grandfather earmarked for entrepreneurial endeavors, the shop has survived the flight to e-tailing by stocking precisely the books you want to buy the moment you walk in. Bookshelves hold some 55,000 titles, arranged by gender, criticism and the astounding literature collection organized by the writers' geographic origins. Refreshments are available at the (soothingly) WiFi-free cafe. The downstairs area hosts exceptional reading series and events where the literati come to meet, greet and talk shop.

The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe on Crosby, part of a group of stores around the City whose mission is to fight HIV/AIDS and end homelessness, is similarly an epicenter for cultural goings-on. It has an excellent selection of used books and is a superb spot for browsing; the café area offers good eats as well as a respite from shopping jaunts. Many a local or out-of-town writer will swing through for a reading; the space has served as venue for camp cabaret performances and even weddings.

Café Gitane. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Caffeine Culture
There are few things that pair better with books than coffee, and while every neighborhood in the City seems to think its coffee shops are the best around, NoLIta and Little Italy have an arguable claim to supremacy. The 270 Lafayette Street outpost of Philly favorite La Colombe is a sleek nook of bentwood banquettes that wouldn't feel out of place in a European capital. Since 2008, the Mott Street location of Brooklyn-based Gimme! Coffee, a standing-room-only joint, has been considered among the best purveyors in NYC (which, to quote The Big Lebowski, puts it in the running for best worldwide). If you'd rather lounge and linger as your cappuccino steams, the cafés of NoLIta may be the closest thing New Yorkers have to Parisian-style coffee culture. At both Café Select and Café Gitane, you can sit side-by-side with the City's most beautiful denizens—who, curiously, always seem to have the time to spare—and watch the rest of the world window-shop past.

Di Palo's Fine Foods. Photo: Will Steacy

For Gourmets and Gourmands
As espresso aficionados will tell you, coffee is a gateway vice into other, more decadent forms of gourmanding. And, beyond the smooth stone bar serving sumptuous Stumptown coffee at the store's entrance, the Nolita Mart has a panoply of gourmet and small-batch delicacies that can turn even the most hardened New York cynic into a giddy foodie. From the old classics like Regan's bitters to the new school of McClure's pickles, bulk soaps, the greatest ginger ales known to man, gourmet chocolates and even pet food, Nolita Mart is stacked high and deep with the best of the best.

But the kingpin, the capo of Italian dairy and charcuterie, is Di Palo's Fine Foods. Opened in 1910 by Savino Di Palo as a latteria selling only homemade cheeses and butters, Di Palo's is still in the family, run by Savino's great-grandson and is still making its own cheeses daily. But the store has expanded its selection (and recently its square footage) to include a vast and somewhat intimidating array of cured meats, classic Italian pantry goods, olives, oils, pastas, vinegars, preserves, honeys, sweets and other delights.

Unis. Photo: Ryan Plett

Along Elizabeth Street
When Little Italy was first emerging, the boundaries of the area stretched as far north as Bleecker Street, and the Italian émigrés settled in groups roughly corresponding to the regions of their motherland. Sicilians, for example, lived mostly along Elizabeth Street. Nowadays this corridor from Houston to Kenmare is a premier stretch of Manhattan shopping. Proceeding south from an interconnected cluster of Rag & Bone shops at the north end, shoppers can mosey into Love, Adorned for a remarkable collection of jewelry, accessories and textile goods. Then on to Barker Black for an irreverent post-punk take on fine British booting. The New York home of Melbourne, Australia's famed apothecary purveyor Aesop will revivify the wearied wanderer—and the space, built by architect Jeremy Barbour out of 400,000 strips of The New York Times, will amaze. Having enjoyed those restoratives, a visit to Eunice Lee's menswear mecca Unis should not be missed; her flawless chinos, chambrays and letterman jackets provide a preview of the urbane downtowner's uniform in the months to come. And artful aesthetics are similarly showcased at the eccentric Raleigh storefront; Shohei Shigematsu, the New York director of the Rem Koolhaas–firm OMA, designed the space, which is complete with a contoured-metal gridwork that displays the items on offer. This is not your typical boutique, but the denim here, handcrafted by Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko in North Carolina may be the platonic form of jeans.

Courtesy, Lord Willy's

Eclectic Collecting
Ask for collectible clothing that is a little less traditional than the standard boutique and NoLIta shall reward you. Humberto Leon and Carol Lim's Opening Ceremony on Howard Street debuted in 2002, with seasonal collections inspired by specific countries (Brazil, '03; Sweden, '06; Japan, '08), but is now justly celebrated for its fashion-forward inventory featuring Acne Studios, Alexander Wang, Band of Outsiders and the label's own collaborations with Yoko Ono, Chloë Sevigny and Rodarte, among others. Amarcord on Lafayette is a paradise for collectors in retro-love with the '60s/'70s Italian style of the eponymous Fellini film—picture racks of furs and glove-leather moto jackets running between shelves stacked with vintage travel cases, stingy-brim fedoras and pumps. For those who yearn for a more visible influence on what they're buying, Alex and Betty Wilcox of Lord Willy's will craft a custom, Savile Row–quality shirt, suit or topcoat with as much personality (Skeleton prints! Bright orange lining!) or as little (butcher stripes) as you'd like.

Inga. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Sundowners and Nightcaps
In NYC, and particularly in Manhattan, no neighborhood is complete without its watering holes. Whether you're searching for a genial place to loosen the tie after a long day, for a late-night spot that never lets a party say die, or anything in between, NoLIta's drinkeries do not disappoint. Aside from having the greatest bar name in history, Sweet & Vicious on Spring Street also has a superb happy hour. The space is ample, is mellow in that dive-y way and is comfortingly tinged with the fragrance of foamy hops; the huge back patio is an exemplary refuge for summertime day drinking. If you're making a night of it, the downstairs tequila bar at La Esquina is a great place to start (though it can be harder to get into than Harvard). If you do somehow charm your way past the bouncers and pass through the nondescript door that grants you access to the downstairs space, there are fine sippin' añejos and table-dancing shots to be had. On those evenings when you're still raring to go after drinks here, Inga will keep the lights on for you. The latest venture from club impresario Travis Bass, Inga, named after Bass' former romp in the back room at the now-defunct White Slab Palace, has all the trappings of his former parties: models, socialites and a general lack of inhibition.

Courtesy, Storefront for Art and Architecture

Cultural Heritage
The Italian American Museum on Mulberry Street was born out of The Italians of New York: Five Centuries of Struggle and Achievement, the acclaimed 1999 exhibition at The New-York Historical Society. The venue is an excellent destination for those looking for a window into the neighborhood's legacy. The now-permanent collection bears witness to the struggles and achievements of Italian Americans both in New York and in America as a whole. In an entirely different vein of the cultural spectrum, Openhouse up the street is one of the best-known host sites for an ever-changing roster of pop-ups and special-occasion celebrations. Sometimes serving as a temporary restaurant, or hosting a party to launch a new brand of gin, clothing or magazine, Openhouse is a testament to the flurry of social events and entrepreneurial élan that make the City so vital. Treading the lines between museum, meeting place and event space, the Storefront for Art and Architecture is both exhibition gallery and town hall for the avant-garde in design, and it recently celebrated its 30th year. New Yorkers have always been rather innovative in their use of limited square footages, and, fittingly, this diminutive triangular venue—nested in a building on the corner of Kenmare and Centre Streets—showcases that ingenuity.